The time for a museum exhibit entirely about women has come, says Sarah Kaufman.
As the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum’s managing director and curator worked to organize the exhibit in time for its Wednesday opening, she spoke of the extraordinary local women, some prominent with names easily recognized, and others who worked quietly behind the scenes, who made their mark on the community.
Aiding Kaufman in the set-up of the all-female display in the main gallery was Shawna Butts, assistant curator and education programmer.
The launch of Making Her Mark: The Women of Niagara-on-the-Lake is the prelude to a book which will feature short biographies on the women who are included in the exhibit, who have contributed to the community. It includes women such as Molly Brant, whose role in history dates back the furthest, to Chloe Cooley, Janet Carnochan, and moves forward to those whose local significance is more recent, including Margherita Howe, Laura Dodson, Donna Scott and Blanche Quinn.
The book release is now slated for January — it was expected to be out sooner, but has been held up to allow biographies of Scott, who died in March, and Quinn, in May, to be included, says Kaufman.
Brant, born in 1736, was a respected First Nations Clan Mother, and a diplomat, interpreter and ally to the British during and after the American Revolution.
Cooley was an enslaved Black woman who, in 1793, was beaten and bound by her owner and transported across the Niagara River to be sold. Her resistance on this side of the river was witnessed and brought to the attention of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, who set in motion legislation to abolish slavery.
Others include Elizabeth Simcoe, Fanny Rowley, the Wesley sisters, and Sarah Carter, and Emma Currie, who wrote a book about Laura Secord, also part of the exhibit.
Three of the NOTL women are recipients of the Order of Canada, points out Kaufman: Howe for leading the clean-up of the Niagara River; Dodson for her 30 years of working to preserve the town’s heritage; and Scott, a successful businesswoman who was a great supporter of arts and culture, including the museum. “That’s quite impressive,” says Kaufman, who adds there are many “amazing women who stand out in so many different ways.” Quinn, a Second World War veteran and municipal politician, “was a firecracker,” she adds.
Others featured in the exhibit are less well-known, including artists, teachers, and authors. Kaufman refers to the well-known maxim, “well-behaved women don’t make history,” explaining this exhibit disproves that.
“The reality is that everyday women don’t aways get the recognition they deserve, but everyday women who make a mark in their community can make a difference, and we want to feature them. We’re remembering them and what they accomplished.”
Much of our history focuses on the military, who have traditionally been male, she says, and it seems the right time to focus on women. “As a student of history I didn’t recall learning a lot about women.”
Kaufman says she remembers coming to visit her grandmother, Nancy Clark, a veteran who came to Canada as a war bride, and who lived just down the street from the museum, in the war-time housing. She was also an active member of the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. “I think about her while I’m working on this exhibit,” she says. Her grandmother, along with several other notable women from town, will have an honourable mention in the book.
There are about 25 women included in the exhibit, says Kaufman. “Our hope is that women and young girls will visit the museum, see the exhibit, and be inspired. Maybe they’ll see themselves as someone who can make a mark on their community.”
The museum has not published a book or offered an exhibit on local women, she says, “and it’s women, Shawna and myself, who are mounting this exhibit, the first one about women, by women.”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero has written a prologue for the book, and made a video to play for members as they arrive for the exhibit launch, says Kaufman. “It’s exciting to have this exhibit during her time as the first woman lord mayor for Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
Members have been invited to Wednesday’s launch, only 15 per hour, as mandated during the pandemic, and wearing masks.
This year’s summer exhibit, which would have been up until the end of the year, was expected to be about the Niagara-on-the-Lake waterfront, says Kaufman, but with the exhibit closed due to the pandemic, it was put on hold. The plan now is to wind up Making her Mark in April, and opening All Along the Waterfront in May.
To allow for extra cleaning due to COVID, the Castlereigh Street museum opening hours continue to be limited to Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Call 905-468-3912 for more information or visit nhsm.ca.